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Carson: NCAA rankings get a much-needed change

| Monday, February 6, 2017

The best news of the college basketball season dropped last month.

As soon as next season, the NCAA tournament selection process will finally start to use — and perhaps embrace — advanced statistical metrics and computer rankings, finishing the long, difficult reign of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).

It’s a great change, as the RPI should have been retired years ago because it is, quite frankly, a subpar measure of team success.

In its purest form, 25 percent of RPI is a team’s record, 50 percent of it is a team’s opponents’ record, and 25 percent is a team’s opponents’ opponents’ record. There’s no adjustment for how much a team wins by — a 1-point win is seen in the same light as a dominant 30-point win — and 75 percent of the calculation is outside of an individual team’s control.

While the NCAA has tried to account for home-court advantage — a 2004 change made road wins worth 1.4 wins and home ones worth just 0.6 — it’s still using a metric that was introduced in 1981.

Do you drive the same car you did in 1981? I’d imagine not. Watch the same TV you did then? Hopefully you’ve at least moved to a high-definition TV, if not one of the new fancy 4K ones. Are we still listening to Blondie and Hall & Oates on top-40 music stations? Unfortunately not.

Just in the same way we’ve made progress in the technology we use in our day-to-day lives, we’ve also made a bunch of progress in the way we use formulas and algorithms to rate college basketball teams.

Through their computer metrics, guys like Jeff Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy have significantly advanced our understanding of college basketball and our ability to predict future results. Sagarin’s point-based spreads have been on the forefront of sports analytics, while Pomeroy’s efficiency-based, and thus tempo-independent, metrics are growing in popularity every year.

Instead of solely relying on patchworked 1981 technology, we’ll now be using modern metrics developed with the best knowledge we have.

Just look at last year for evidence of where this change will be most beneficial. A season ago, Wichita State finished the season as one of college basketball’s most dominant teams — the Shockers won 13 Missouri Valley games by 20 or more points — after overcoming an early season slide without key guard Fred VanVleet. Most ratings systems saw the Shockers as a clear tournament team — in the top 30 by most metrics — while Pomeroy’s ratings had Wichita State as the No. 12 team in the nation at the end of the season.

Yet, the Shockers were tied for No. 86 in RPI, and instead of being seeded in the top half of the bracket as they should have, the committee had Wichita State as one of the last four teams in, sending them to Dayton, Ohio, for the First Four. After a pair of big wins over Vanderbilt and Arizona, the Shockers finally caught the fatigue bug in a second-round loss to Miami.

The issue, of course, is that the Shockers had to go through a much more difficult path than they should have in March, something that directly contributed to their exit.

There will, of course, always be a place for the so-called “eye test.” Few suggest eliminating visual evidence in this process — this is a common straw man used by anti-stats baseball scouts in their field — but when the selection committee tries to go to statistical metrics in the future, they’ll be doing so with a number of modern measures.

And when the committee’s job means so much to so many teams, that can only be a good thing.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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